Marikana 10 years on – Historical significance of uprising of South African mineworkers

There can be no tribute more fitting to the martyrs of Marikana than the South African Federation of Trade Unions’ planned National Shut Down on 24 August 2022 which is attracting support across the workers’ movement. A commemoration worthy of the fallen in the bloodiest confrontation between the working class and the capitalist class in the democratic-era – for which no one has been held accountable a full decade later – requires learning the lessons of an event that gave concentrated expression to the irreconcilable social and political contradictions between the classes. Its most important lesson is the necessity to overthrow capitalism and to remove from power its main political party, the African National Congress (ANC), and to defeat all those poised to join them in propping-up capitalism in a new edition of a “government of national unity” should the ANC fail to form a government on its on in the 2024 election.

The 2012 uprising of mineworkers uprising is rich in lessons for the working class about:

  • the capitalist class character of the ANC and all its rivals in parliament
  • the strategic aims of the negotiated settlement signed at the 1991/2 Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA) to preserve capitalism and the slavery of the working class
  • the role of the trade unions as lieutenants of capital in the labour movement
  • the nature and tasks of the struggle of the working class – the only class capable of leading the struggle for the overthrow of capitalism and the socialist transformation of society
  • the necessity for a mass workers’ party on a socialist programme

The massacre itself is a warning of the lengths the capitalist class is prepared to go to defend their system. It is above all a clarion call from beyond the grave by the martyrs of Marikana to the rest of the working class to recognise the necessity to complete the process of reclaiming its class and political independence they had begun by forming a mass workers party on a socialist programme.

Events

The Marikana massacre was not the “tragedy” the hypocritical narrative and crocodile tears in which the ANC is bathing the slaughter of 34 mine workers. The evidence is now indisputable that the massacre was premeditated. The workers had gathered at Wonderkop Hill, away from the mine premises, precisely to escape the mine security whose murderous actions had already led to the death of six workers before the massacre. They were prevented from peacefully descending from the hill, corralled by razor wire to be shot down like fish in a barrel at ‘scene one’, and immediately afterwards at ‘scene two’ where many had fled to be hunted down and shot like wild animals.

For a full hour the bodies of the slain were left lying where they had fallen, to prevent anyone from reaching them, as those who might have survived the murderous volley lay bleeding to death. Officers armed with automatic rifles from the Tactical Response Unit, previously known as the Riot Squad under apartheid, planted firearms next to the bodies. To add insult to injury and death, the state initially charged the survivors of the massacre with murder for the death of their fellow comrades using the apartheid-era ‘Common Purpose’ legislation used to suppress the struggles for national liberation.

This was an attempt to drown in blood an uprising of mineworkers who were determined to break the chains of slavery of post-apartheid capitalism the ANC government was policing on behalf of their capitalist masters in which it would take the average worker in the platinum mines three hundred years to earn what a CEO earned in twelve months.

Background

The Marikana massacre did not spring from a clear blue sky. Its logic was embedded in the neo-liberal Growth Employment and Redistribution strategy (Gear) the Mandela/Mbeki leadership and a small cabal in the ANC cabinet imposed on the ANC and the country in 1996. It has ensured the capitalist exploitation and oppression previously managed by the apartheid regime would continue under the bourgeois-democratic post-apartheid capitalist order.

The massive transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich that had commenced under colonialism and apartheid continued under the democratically elected ANC government catapulting SA to the position the World Bank today classifies as the most unequal society on the planet. According to the 2020 World Inequality Report the post-apartheid democratic dispensation has not just continued the inequality created by colonialism and apartheid but deepened it. Today the top 10% own 86% of the wealth (income and assets) and the bottom 50% have negative wealth.

Class Polarisation

The mineworkers uprising occurred against the background of the global Great Recession triggered by the 2008 global financial implosion – the worst crisis of world capitalism since the Great Depression of the 1930s. The ANC government responded to the crisis by stepping-up the attacks on the working class with social spending cuts, described by one journalist as “eye-watering”, that have devastated health, education and social welfare.

Like their class brothers and sisters in the public sector who had embarked on SA’s first public sector general strikes in 2007 and 2010, the mineworkers were determined to resist the attempt of the mining bosses to make them pay for the crisis. The public sector general strikes were in reality the first trial of strength between the organised workers and the capitalist ANC government over its neo-liberal capitalist war on the working class. By then the polarisation between the classes had reflected itself in skirmishes in the rising number of service delivery protests that had claimed the life of teenager Tebogo Mkhonza in 2005. Andries Tatane of Ficksburg was to be executed later live on television in 2011.

The ANC’s first split which saw the recall of Thabo Mbeki as president of the country following his defeat by Jacob Zuma at the 2007 Polokwane conference, and the birth of the Congress of the People (Cope), represented the first albeit indirect expression of the polarisation between the classes on the political plane. The Cosatu leadership had played the leading role in mobilising the working class behind Zuma, ensuring his accession to the presidency of the ANC and the country both in 2007 and at Mangaung in December 2012 with an even bigger majority.

Zuma was to reward the Cosatu members for the loyalty of its leadership by presiding over the biggest massacre of the working class since Sharpeville in 1960 and the youth uprising of 1976/77. The ANC government had in fact already shown its class hostility and authoritarian inclinations towards the organised workers during the public sector general strikes with strident denunciations of workers as thugs and murderers and threats to declare strikes in the education and health sectors, as well as the police and army illegal.

In the run up to the Marikana massacre, however, the Zuma government elected to avoid another confrontation with the public sector workers by signing a three-year agreement in July 2012 – a month before the Marikana massacre when the uprising of the mineworkers was in full swing. A national general strike had only been narrowly averted in 2010 thanks to the announcement, by then-Cosatu (Congress of South African Trade Unions) general secretary Vavi that “the mother of all general strikes” had been called off within days of promising it.

Whereas the Cosatu leadership had offered its services to the capitalist ANC government in 2010 by radical posturing before the public sector workers, it was to reveal the full extent of its degeneration in the role it was to play in the mineworkers uprising in 2012.

The most important feature of the mineworkers’ strike was that it took place not only independently of, but against the leadership of the National Union of Mineworkers, Cosatu’s biggest, wealthiest and politically most influential affiliate.

The mineworkers were to take this course of action as a result of the fact that the degeneration of the NUM leadership had evolved into open collaboration with the mining bosses. As we pointed out then:

During the NUM’s 2011 shop stewards elections, the workers had voted out the majority of the old committee and replaced them with their preferred candidates. The NUM regional office rejected the elections as ‘unconstitutional’ and refused to recognise the new committee. Instead of attempting to resolve the matter with their members, NUM regional leaders informed management that the structure had not been recognised.

When management refused to deal with the committee, the workers rejected this attempt by management to interfere with their democratic will and, in effect, to dictate to them who they may or may not elect. The NUM distanced itself from the strike, and 9,000 workers were dismissed for striking illegally.

The strike was triggered by the bosses’ decision to grant wage increases to selected groups of workers to prevent them, rumour has it, from defecting to other companies offering higher rates of pay in a sector with no centralised bargaining or uniform remuneration. These increases breached a two-year agreement signed with the NUM and due to end in 2013. Seeing this as an attempt to create divisions, and with the two-year agreement effectively set aside by management with the apparent acquiescence of the NUM, the workers, acting independently, put forward a single pay demand to unite the workforce against the bosses. The NUM’s impotence in the face of these developments had infuriated the workers and reopened the wounds of the NUM’s betrayal of the Lonmin workers last year. A committee was formed independently of the NUM.

Marikana Massacre Ignites the Mass Movement (2012)

Despite the massacre, in September the Lonmin workers were to secure an increase very close to the R12,500 they had demanded. Shockingly, the NUM leadership denounced the agreement as “setting a wrong precedent”! This was no accident. The NUM leadership’s investment arm, the Mineworkers Investment Company, were co-owners of Ubank with the Chamber of Mines. With mineworkers as its primary clientele, the profits of Ubank depended on workers earning slave-wages to be topped-up with loans from it. The NUM leadership had a vested interest in slave-wages converting them into conscious agents of the mining bosses. Frans Baleni, then NUM secretary general, denounced the R12,500 wage demand as unreasonable when his earnings from member subscriptions and fees for attending board meetings, amounted to +R1m a year – nearly ten times more than the members who elected him.

Less well known about the aftermath of the massacre is that the mining bosses and the state stepped-up the offensive against the workers. As we pointed out at the time, after the strikes ended mine bosses waged a relentless campaign to reassert their control. Many of the strike committee leaders were dismissed or imprisoned. Mass retrenchments were used to try and demoralise, fragment and disunite the mineworkers. 20,000 were retrenched at Amplats, Steelport and elsewhere as part of plans to retrench up to 200,000 mineworkers over the following five years as revealed in the leaked documents of the mine bosses themselves.

On the political plane Ramaphosa, who first earned the recognition of the capitalist class for capitulating in the 1987 mineworkers strike, in which even bourgeois commentators have pointed-out, the NUM could have defeated the AngloAmerican bosses. Instead he justified ending the first mineworkers’ strike since 1946 with the infamous excuse that it was a “tactical manoeuvre sideways.”

In the aftermath of the Marikana massacre he once again volunteered to be the reliable servant of capital. For creating the climate for the massacre as a board member of Lonmin, denouncing the mineworkers uprising as “a criminal act that must be dealt with concomitantly” he was rewarded with a R1bn war chest funded by big business. This ensured his ascendancy to the presidency of the ANC and the country, entering office armed with amendments to the Labour Relations Act aimed at crippling the right to strike through compulsory balloting, encouraging strike breaking with onerous picketing rules and even the right to end strikes under whatever pretext the state may invent, thus emasculating the power of the trade unions.

As the strike action at Sibanye this year demonstrated, the insolence of the capitalist class remains undiluted. The same event, however, also reaffirmed the determination of the mineworkers themselves and the recognition of the necessity for workers unity that assured their victory.

That the demand for a minimum wage of R12,500 has been given pride of place amongst the new trade union federation Saftu’s demands, signifies the federation’s 630,000 members have picked-up the spear of the fallen 34 mineworkers who sacrificed their lives on 16 August 2012. Correctly, Saftu and the Working Class Summit it initiated have made it clear that the National Shut down of 24 August, 2022 will be but the commencement of rolling campaign of mass action, the most important aim of which will be the realisation of one of its demands: the stepping aside of the ANC government itself.

Historic Significance

These developments were foreseen by the Marxists organised initially as the Marxist Workers Tendency of the ANC, the Democratic Socialist Movement at the time of Marikana, and today as the Marxist Workers Party.

Peter Taaffe, a member of the CWI leadership, in his 1994 pamphlet From Slavery to the Smashing of Apartheid, recalled the experience of newly-independent Namibia:

Developments in Namibia to the north have been noted by South African workers. SWAPO (the South West African Peoples’ Organisation), which now governs Namibia, had a proud tradition of struggle against colonialism, like the ANC. It waged a valiant armed struggle and was unstinting in its “commitment to revolutionary ideals”. Moreover, just as Cosatu has been the bedrock of ANC support, the Mineworkers’ Union of Namibia (MUN) threw its weight behind SWAPO at its January 1989 national congress “to render all support to the national liberation organisation, SWAPO of Namibia, in the forthcoming elections.” It also argued “that SWAPO will create a more favourable climate for workers to fight exploitation.”

And yet in November 1993 the very same SWAPO government deployed its riot police against the MUN picket line at the strike-hit Consolidated Diamond Mines (CDM).

One South African commentator, Amrit Manger, writing in the Sunday Nation on 21 November 1993, commented that it “rekindled memories of 1 April, 1989, when 50,000 Namibian workers marching against privatisation were driven back by 300 kovert (South African apartheid police).” The explanation as to why the SWAPO government took this brutal step was given by Andimbo Toyoyatova, a former rail worker who was once incarcerated on Robben Island but is now minister of mines and energy in the SWAPO government. He stated that the government could not afford a prolonged strike. “Namibia depends too much on the mining sector. It has become vital to the welfare of the country.”

This is the logic of SWAPO’s decision to remain within the framework of capitalism. Accepting capitalism, they must bow to the dictates of the market, of native and international capital.

Peter went on to issue a warning to the South African working class anticipating the Marikana massacre by nearly two decades

There are powerful lessons here for the South African working class. How long will it be before an ANC government sends in police and army units against striking workers or rebellious inhabitants of the African townships? The coalition government [Government of National Unity – GNU], with the ANC as a majority, will be subject to remorseless contrary and counter class pressures. Mandela and the right of the ANC have already bent the knee to capitalism, both within the country and on an international scale.

Thus armed, we recognised the historic significance of the Marikana massacre and the events that had led up to it in a series of articles beginning immediately afterwards. Reiterating our analysis in June 2015, we explained

… the Marikana massacre would prove to be the fault line, drawn in the blood of the martyrs of Marikana, between two epochs in the post-apartheid era, the first of illusions in the ANC and bourgeois parliamentary democracy, and the second the era of the breaking of the illusions in the ANC, a break-out from the political prison of the Tripartite Alliance, and the embarkation by the working class on a journey in search of its own class and political independence. Rarely in history has it been possible to identify the commencement of the appearance of the fault line between two historical epochs with the accuracy that the Marikana massacre has enabled historians to do.  The old ended at precisely 15:40 on the 16th of August 2013; the new began 8 second later.

The Marikana Report – A Whitewash (2015)

The main lines of the perspectives for the economy, relations between the classes and consequently the political relations between the ANC and the working class, outlined by Peter Taaffe, have been borne out by events nearly thirty years later. From his analysis of the incapacity of capitalism to satisfy the social aspirations of the working class, Peter Taaffe’s prediction that the incompatibility between the ANC’s capitalist aspirations and the expectations of the working class would bring the ANC government into open collision with the working class, had been confirmed.

In a brilliant example of the application of the Marxist method, Peter Taaffe foretold that the working class would be compelled to reclaim its class independence and embark on an attempt to fashion the political instrument for its social emancipation – a mass workers party on a socialist programme.

Marxism, as Trotsky explains, is the science of perspectives, providing the advantage of foresight over astonishment. Armed with these perspectives, the DSM had been able to prepare. As we explained in the same June 2015 statement, the

Democratic Socialist Movement, co-founders of the Workers and Socialist Party, and the only left force to intervene in these tumultuous events, had been present in Rustenburg for three years before Marikana, anticipating that the chain of working class illusions in the post-apartheid dispensation would break at its strongest link – the NUM, at that time the biggest, richest and politically most influential of Cosatu’s affiliates.

From these events, we concluded, the working class would draw the most profound conclusions. The working class sometimes arrives at an understanding from the significance of a single event, what they had apprehended incrementally in their consciousness over decades from a succession of events which individually did not reveal their significance. The Marikana massacre we pointed out, illuminated with blinding clarity the implications of the successive betrayals of the ANC over the previous 18 years.

What the editor of Business Day had understood immediately after Marikana, the workers understood also at the same time. The ANC had revealed itself as the party of the mining bosses and the broader capitalist class; the state had revealed itself as the armed guardians of the dictatorship of capital; Cosatu and the SACP had betrayed themselves as the collaborators of the capitalist class and their political management team, the ANC in the perpetuation of working class slavery.

The Marikana Report – A Whitewash (2015)

Situation Today

Whilst events will not proceed in a straight line, as Peter pointed-out, the underlying process of class polarisation, ideological and political clarification and differentiation and reconfiguration has, and will nonetheless continue.

The 2007 and 2010 public sector strikes had been an indirect expression of the polarisation between the classes and reflected in a distorted manner in the ANC with the replacement of Mbeki by Zuma. The uprising of the mineworkers was a challenge on a higher political level. Amongst the messages implied by the Sibanye workers in their occupation of the Union Buildings after they had put Ramaphosa to flight at the 2022 May Day rally, was that they retained the understanding their uprising announced in 2012 – that their class enemy was the entire post-apartheid ruling political and economic elite – the mining bosses, the NUM, Cosatu, the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the ANC government itself.

There is no question that the 2012 mineworkers Marikana uprising placed the question of a workers party on the agenda. This is the reason that the independent National Strike Committee and the DSM together launched the Workers and Socialist Party in 2013 as a broad workers party inclusive of trade unions, youth and community organisations. Squeezed by the massively financially better-resourced EFF and deserted by the left, Wasp did not manage to get a seat. But its establishment was historically justified as the first consciously socialist electoral vehicle launched in the post-apartheid era.

The National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa, the largest trade union in South Africa)  leadership responded to the pressure of the enormous anger of the working class over the Marikana massacre by convening its 2013 Special National Congress (SNC). But it is now abundantly clear that that the corrupt Stalinist leadership that had seized control of the union had no intention of enabling it to emerge with the United Front and Movement for Socialism it had initiated and aborted, or the workers’ party it had promised. When, following our intervention at the 2017 launch of Saftu, the question was forced back onto the agenda, the Numsa leadership hastily created the Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party – a ‘new’ version of the SACP, whose Deputy-General Secretary, Jeremy Cronin, had denounced the Marikana strikes as the actions of a “Pondoland vigilante mafia”.

Whilst many on the left were hypnotised by the SRWP, and a small minority of the Numsa membership gave the leadership the benefit of the doubt for its claims that it was the belated implementation of the 2013 SNC resolution, the overwhelming majority of the Numsa membership was very clear that this was not the party they had in mind from the 2013 SNC. The SRWP’s failure to obtain even a single seat represented an emphatic repudiation of the SRWP by the Numsa membership in whose name it had been created.

Build a Mass Workers Party – the Best Tribute to the Martyrs of Marikana

Saftu has now been placed on a class war footing is primarily due to the rebellion of the rank-and-file opposition in Numsa, Instimbi Ayigobi. Emerging first as Numsa-2 at the May Saftu Congress, they ensured the defeat of Numsa general secretary Ivin Jim’s cabal’s threat to collapse the congress if their attempt to extend their dictatorship over Numsa onto Saftu was opposed.

Despite Instimbi Ayigobi’s decisive victories at both the Saftu congress and in the Labour Court, the battle for Numsa, Saftu and most importantly, the restoration of the traditions of workers’ control and democracy in the union movement and socialism in the broader working class has only just begun.

Instimbi Ayigobi has taken onto its shoulders the legacy of the martyrs of Marikana. For that the task of democratic organisational renewal of the trade unions must be recognised as inseparable from the ideological and political rearmament of the working class movement as a whole.

Worldwide the working class masses are on the march against the barbarism of capitalism, the rising cost of living, war, environmental degradation, the oppression of women and minorities on the basis of sexuality, religion, race and nationality. Out of the coming struggles the creation of mass workers’ parties with socialist programmes worldwide would mark important steps forward preparing the way for the emergence of mass revolutionary movements and parties capable of leading the creation of a socialist world.

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